I am so happy to have this opportunity to write for Free Thought Blogs. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while.
An Atheist Writing About Mental Health
Before coming to FtB, I wrote for a popular mental health site. I would use my own experiences living with schizoaffective disorder to write articles that were hopefully uplifting and helpful. Some of my articles were painfully honest when it came to describing my own ups and downs in recovery. I always tried to keep it positive and I tended to stress the importance of medication and treatment.
Having schizoaffective disorder and being atheist seems somewhat unique, but last week a commenter showed me that I’m not alone. I thought that was really cool. Most others I meet with schizoaffective disorder and other forms of schizophrenia tend to be religious.
Religious Influence on Mental Illness
Many people associate schizophrenia with religious delusions, and it does seem somewhat common. I have seen this and it’s definitely eye-opening. I feel very fortunate to be doing well and not suffering from these kinds of symptoms.
What causes religious delusions? I mean, the original ideas of religious beliefs must have been planted at some point before the delusions developed, right? I’m assuming this happens before the person is known to have a mental illness.
However, I feel religious influence after a diagnosis is just as frightening. A mental illness is a serious condition that requires treatment. You can’t pray a mental illness away. Religion often gets in the way of people getting the help they need. People with mental illness are just another vulnerable population oppressed by religion.
Mental Illness Requires Medical Treatment
Sometimes you don’t see how sick you really are until you’re feeling better. It’s an important revelation in recovery, but you have to be willing to accept treatment.
I am so grateful for modern medicine and science for developing treatments to alleviate my symptoms. I’m not saying every day in recovery is easy, but for me, most days are. I take a few pills and go about my day. I don’t have to do anything strenuous or time-consuming to feel better. I don’t mind taking pills. It feels like a simple solution to a complicated problem. A lot of people look down at psych meds, but why suffer if you don’t have to? I know how much they have helped me.
Will My Mental Illness Affect My Credibility?
One thing I was scared about when I decided to write about atheism is that religious people would be quick to discredit me based on my mental illness diagnosis. Just like with the religious delusions, people with forms of schizophrenia are stereotyped with some horrible symptoms and behaviors. For many sufferers, these stereotypes just aren’t the case. Also, recovery can be quite transformative. Years of recovery have taught me how to quickly recognize when to ask for help but also how to help others. I actually feel the skills you learn in recovery make you a little saner than most.
An Important Commonality
I’ve noticed that atheists and people in recovery have something very important in common – the ability to express empathy. I choose to make that a guiding force in my writing as well as my everyday life.
Thoughts? Feelings? I would love to hear from others with a mental health diagnosis. How does your illness affect your atheist views?
Like many (maybe most) transgender people, I suffer from PTSD (specifically, complex PTSD.) It’s classed as a mental illness in the DSM-V, but I’d say it’s more of a “mental injury.”
I don’t call myself an “atheist,” but rather an “apatheist” — I don’t know and don’t care whether a “God” exists. I was raised Christian, and I remember being very involved with the rituals of the church. But I was also going through Hell at the time, and nobody cared (except to tell me it was my own fault), so at some (unconscious) level, I came to assume that if some sort of God who cares about each one of Her creatures did exist, She evidently didn’t care about me. All my life, I’ve had to sink or swim on my own with no help from anybody, human or divine; I figure if She exists, she’ll just have to take care of Herself without any help from me.
One thing that experience has left me with is the firm conviction that if we humans have any purpose in life, it is to relieve (and maybe prevent) other people’s suffering. I sometimes say my “theology” is that all that matters is how you treat other people (a.k.a. “don’t be a dick.”) If you’re doing what you can to make other people’s lives better, I don’t care what prayers you pray or what rationalizations you use for your behavior, you’re a Good Person. And on the flip side, if you’re engaged in making people’s lives worse, I don’t care what your religion or non-religion or philosophy or other rationalization you use, you are a Bad Person.
I have to admit, I do react badly to the sort of glurge that tells how “Jesus was walking with you in your worst moments, and carrying you when you couldn’t walk.” I want to say to the people that say this, “that’s a lie. Nobody was there for me, and when I couldn’t walk, I had to lie there, being called lazy and willful for not standing up, until I could drag myself to my feet.” (Sounds like how the respectable folks treat homeless people, doesn’t it?)
And yes, my reasons are emotional, not philosophical or scientific. But then, religious people aren’t religious for philosophical or scientific reasons; they Believe because it helps them make sense of their lives and gives them purpose to get them through the day. Well, the only way I can make sense of my life is to believe that the universe (God or not) has no purpose for us (because if it did, that purpose would be sadism.) It’s up to use to find a purpose and a reason for staying alive.
Marcus Ranum says
Christianity (and other religions) seem to place a value on suffering; I think that it’s pretty common for religions to tell people with mental disorders “suck it up buttercup” and tell them that drugs are bad because, presumably, they don’t take as much effort and suffering, or something. I’ve always wondered why religions seem to do that, and all I come up with it that they’re just cruel people. Who’s “sick” in that context?
IMO, people who tend to be religious are also terrified of anything or anyone that’s different and lash out trying to destroy anything that makes them feel scared. My experience with my religious family-of-birth is nowhere near as traumatic as Allison’s, but I was born someone who likes Star Trek and Jane Austen and documentaries, in a family that gobbles down Nascar and The Bachelor and anything where you don’t have to think. I joke that my family’s response to me is, “Kill it! Kill it with fire!”…but there’s a truth in the joke. To put my own spin on what Marcus said, I think people like that want to inflict suffering on people for the “sin” of not being exactly like those judging them, and also through the terror of knowing if mental illness or difference can happen to someone else, it might happen to *them*, too.
On a lighter note that’s still in the theme of what I said; currently the usual suspects are losing their collective minds over a child’s toy: a plastic charcuterie set. Why? These are the people who wouldn’t blink at a little girl playing with a toy kitchen or a toy grocery cart filled with plastic food…why does a plastic board with plastic cheese and plastic crackers and plastic grapes offend them so? You can buy real charcuterie trays in Walmart and the low-end supermarket near me, so clearly Rill ‘Murkkkuns have eaten cheese and crackers before. Ashes, you have a daughter; have you heard about this latest silliness?
That’s pretty funny. When I saw your comment this morning I had never heard of this toy charcuterie set, but just a couple hours later I saw a story about it on Facebook. I really don’t get why it would upset people, but it’s not something my daughter is familiar with either. American cheese singles and hotdogs seem to be more realistic in our household. 🙂
I have serious recurrent depression. I can’t say I have related it in any way to my atheism, but I rarely think about my atheism, having attained it – I used to be a CofE evangelical – over the years it has just become one truth about me, but I am lucky in that living in the UK most of the time it simply isn’t an issue. The only time it comes up is when someone comes to the door proslytising, they nearly always go away when I declare I am an atheist and usually don’t come back. All of my siblings and most of my friends are also atheists, one friend is married to a Catholic, but she doesn’t bring religion up when amongst the rest of us.
Although “everyone” knew I had mental health issues at a young age (it runs in both sides of my family) no one ever told me about anything. Everyone treated psychosis as a fact of life. What was drilled into me was that if people found out I was “weird” or “sick” I’d be “taken away”. All my life, I knew to keep my illness hidden even though I didn’t know I was ill. My earliest psychoses were not at all religious.
Neither of my parents were religious, so they didn’t pass much religion on to me–but I learned a lot in school and off television. In the 1970s in Ontario there was no attempt to keep Christianity out of public schools. I remember running home in a blind panic the day I learned in school about Satan. From that point on, the devil haunted everything.
My schizoaffective and OCD kicked in hard when I was in my mid teens and I suffered from a lot of psychoses–and many of them were religious in nature. I experienced everything from the devil coming to personally drag me to hell, to thinking I was Jesus in disguise, to thinking I was the universe being conscious of itself.
In the 1990s, cable TV brought American televangelists to Ontario in a big way. I became obsessed and I believed everything they said (even when they contradicted each other). I became convinced I was living in the end times. Being gay, I thought for sure I’d be left behind in the rapture, would end up on the side of hell, and would ultimately be thrown into the lake of fire.
I got into a lot of arguments on the Internet in the 80s and 90s. As I researched the foundations of what I believed in order to better defend it, what I saw instead was that the basic beliefs underlying everything were arbitrary. It was all rhetoric. Was all human knowledge like this? I looked at other religions, trying to find their best apologetics. I wanted to be convinced–but unless there are some great arguments out there that I missed, I found nothing to salvage my faith. I became an agnostic instead of an atheist because I always have a thought of doubt in the back of my mind asking “what if I’m wrong”?
When 2000/2001 came and went without incident it was irrefutable evidence to me that I’d wasted years worrying about bullshit. The problem was, despite being an agnostic, I kept having religious visions and experiences (now they were no longer all Christian in nature). In late 2002 I finally started reading about mental illness of Wikipedia and realized a lot of it fit me. I saw my doctor, and was eventually diagnosed as schizoaffective. I’ve been faithfully on meds ever since. I still have minor symptoms but nothing like they were. I feel as if a great weight has been lifted off me.
If the gods want me, I somehow doubt a few milligrams of risperidone will keep them away. Of course, the gods aren’t actually there, are they?
Aren’t meds awesome? I also took risperidone. It was the first antipsychotic I tried. I just remember when I first noticed that my hallucinations were gone everything felt so quiet and still. I felt this clarity and calm and it was amazing. I definitely didn’t know how sick I was until I started medication and felt better.
Also, I have friends and family that are gay that didn’t come out until they were older. They were surrounded by conservative Christians and scared. I don’t know exactly what it felt like for them but it seemed like there was a lot of inner turmoil as they struggled with their own beliefs as well. I just can’t imagine. That must have been absolute hell to be in the closet and struggling for so long.
Thank you so much for sharing your story.